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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Mother, daughter learn English, seek ‘better future’ in Norwich

    Editor’s note: In this two-day series, we profile people who have recently moved to the Norwich and New London area eager to learn English and better their lives and the professionals dedicated to teaching English to school-age children and adults.

    Ernestina “Erika” Rios and her daughter Kristell Gamarra, 10, both originally from Peru, pose for a photo during a Families Learning English class for parents at John B. Stanton School in Norwich on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Teacher Angel Martinez talks through animal names with students during a Families Learning English class for parents at John B. Stanton School in Norwich on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Students, from left, Elsy Salas, Camila Rios and Erika Rios, all from Peru, take notes during a Families Learning English class for parents at John B. Stanton School in Norwich on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Norwich ― Multilingual teacher Angel Martinez recalled a day four years ago when he met the quiet, new second-grade girl who spoke no English and seemed lost.

    Martinez wrote a sentence and asked the girl, Kristell Gamarra, to copy it. Her handwriting was exquisite, he recalled, proof that she had schooling in her home country of Peru.

    Martinez, who teaches at John B. Standon Elementary School, spent the next three years pushing the eager student to read, write, learn English and excel at academics.

    Within two years, Kristell exited the school’s multilingual program, no longer needing the extra help in English.

    “I didn’t want her to feel like I was pushing her away, but I also didn’t want to be holding her hand all the time,” Martinez said. “I didn’t want her to feel, if I wasn’t there, she would fail miserably. She started feeling more independent.”

    Now 10, Kristell is thriving in fifth grade at Stanton, getting ready for the big jump to middle school. Math is now her favorite subject, as she proudly rattled off several digits of pi, the mathematical constant that begins with 3.14159 and never ends.

    Kristell kept coming to see Martinez for brush-up lessons, help with school projects and just to talk. MLL students continue to receive support for two years after they gain English proficiency, Martinez said.

    Kristell said her biggest dream right now is to have her family move out of their current small apartment to a larger place so she can get a puppy. Outside school, she loves swimming and is enrolled in a gymnastics program at Thames Valley Gymnastics in Franklin.

    “I tell other students, don’t give up and keep trying and remember, that it’s for a good reason you came here,” Kristell said. “My mom told me that it’s because you can get a better future here than in Peru or other places. So, try your best and keep going and don’t let anyone make you get behind.”

    Kristell’s mother, Ernestina “Erika” Rios, 32, said the family moved from Peru to Norwich with Rios’ three siblings and their children four years ago. She owned a small furniture company in Lima, Peru, but the economy was bad.

    “I wanted a better future, because Peru is rough. Safety reasons,” Rios said.

    Rios now busses tables at a restaurant at Foxwoods Resort Casino. She hopes to become a restaurant server when she improves her English.

    Rios and several other parents of Stanton School MLL students also now are Martinez’s students, in a beginners class called Families Learning English, learning the same lessons as the 59 kindergarten through second grade students Martinez and a partner teacher now have in their MLL classes.

    “I love English. It’s difficult,” Rios said during one evening class in early February. “I like Norwich. It’s beautiful. People are nice.”

    Martinez started teaching the Families Learning English class at Stanton, the Norwich school, a year ago. Earlier this month, he was asked to add a second adult English class to his workload at the Adult Education building in Greeneville to help ease the long waiting list for English learners.

    “It’s so nice. I love having Erika as a student,” Martinez said. “I feel like I’m having Kristell again. You see the same mannerisms, the same personalities.”

    Martinez can share first-hand immigrant experiences with his students, young and older. He grew up in Mexico near the U.S. border at Laredo, Texas. His father was a veterinarian, frequently crossing the Rio Grande to treat patients on both sides of the border. Martinez went along. As a youth, Martinez attended summer camps in Wisconsin. He taught himself English and while studying international commerce at a college in Mexico, he became interested in teaching English.

    He met his future husband, Bradford Hyde of Norwich, in the United States. They got married in Mexico, and Martinez obtained a conditional visa to move to the United States. In 2018, he started working as a paraeducator at Samuel Huntington School in Norwich.

    Because of the great need for bilingual teachers, Martinez fast-tracked his career, working while earning his teaching certificate through Sacred Heart University, then his master’s degree and later his adult education certificate. All while helping dozens of elementary school students learn English.

    When the couple settled into their Norwich home, because they had a Spanish-speaking household, they took in foster care children, some unaccompanied minors, from Spanish-speaking countries. Later, they fostered American children and now have an adopted 13-year-old son.

    Martinez hears the stories of the American Dream from the families he teaches. The dream is real, but many don’t realize the hard work and time it will take to go through immigration, get jobs, often low-paying menial jobs – even as college graduates – as they learn English and American culture.

    “I feel like the best I can do is to do my best with teaching them whatever I can to help them be independent and give them the tools necessary,” Martinez said. “That’s my focus to support these children. There are days I feel overwhelmed, and then I see things that make it worth it.”


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